Falcons cornerback Justin Bethel, a three-time Pro Bowler, discusses playing special teams and the new kickoff rules. Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter

COVER 9@9: Quinn, Bethel on the new kickoff rules

Smaller, speeder players will make kickoff units 

1. New kickoff rules: The Falcons spent part of the OTA session working on the new kickoff rules on Tuesday.

New special teams maven Justin Bethel, who was signed a one-year, $1.7 million contract with a $400,000 signing bonus, and coach Dan Quinn addressed the changes to the kickoff rule that was passed at the owner’s meeting recently in Atlanta.

“I think it’s an interesting rule,” Bethel said. “I think they are trying to stop concussions and all that stuff. The league and the NFLPA did what they had to do to get the rules across. We’ve been practicing under the new guidelines and we are going to do the best that we can with it.”

Quinn believes the rule will take the bigger players off the kickoff and kickoff return teams with smaller and faster players replacing them. We may see teams keep more wide receivers and defensive backs active for the 45-man game day rosters.

“You don’t get a running start, so really you only get the one yard for your take off,” Quinn said. “You don’t get to time it up anymore with the kicker. That always took some time to work that part out. Now, it’s right from a standing start.”

The blocking will be different, too. 

“The same thing on the kickoff return side because the guys are closer and there are no wedges, there has to be more ground to close on a return,” Quinn said. “That honestly is one of the hardest things to do, that open-field blocking where there is so much space.”

Smaller players may be knocked out of their contain lanes and create wide open space for returners. 

“Before you had a double-team (on) one side, a trap (on) the other,” Quinn said. “I think those trap blocks can happen. The double (teams) that happen in the zone that’s permitted, but not the deep wedges down the field where the returners are.

“At the end of 2018, it will be interesting to see if it will be safer. There will be more returns and in some ways that could make the game ever more exciting,” Quinn said.

2. The Bethel plan: Bethel, who recently made the second-team all-time special teams unit compiled by Rich Gosselin, has 88 career special-teams tackles, forced four fumbles and recovered three others. He signed with the Falcons after playing for the Cardinals.

He’s also blocked three field goals and an extra point. He returned one of his blocked field goals 82 yards for a touchdown back in 2016 against the Bears. 

He was elated to be on the all-time team. 

“It’s a great honor,” Bethel said. “I’ve always done the stuff in my career to get me that name to where people know me for special teams. It’s an honor to be with a lot of those guys. …That’s something that I take pride in and I just want to be sure that I always take pride it in. I know that (special teams coordinator) Keith (Armstrong) won’t let me (slack off.)”

3. Southern homecoming: Bethel, who was born in Sumter, S.C. and raised in Columbia, S.C., played in college for the Presbyterian Blue Hose. He’s looking forward to training camp.  

“It’s close and my family can come and watch me,” Bethel said. “But the OTAs have been really cool. It’s a really nice vibe. We’ve got music playing and everybody is trying to stay loose. They make sure that everybody is taken care of, making sure that guys are getting enough rest. I’m really enjoying it.” 

Bethel knows that he’s a key part of the Falcons’ plan to revitalize the special teams units after finishing 22nd in Gosselin’s overall rankings last season. 

“When I came in and I was talking to Keith and (special teams assistant coach) Mayur (Chaudhari), they kind of told me that if we are bringing you in here, we want you to take that leadership role from what you’ve done,” Bethel said. “Go out there and show guys how to do what you’ve been doing over the years.

“I plan on doing that. I plan on being able to come in and play how I have been, making key and major plays on special teams and changing outcomes of the game.”

4. OTA injury update: Falcons wide receiver/defensive back Russell Gage, a sixth-round (194th overall) draft pick, had a ‘tweak’ and was working off to the side with trainers during the open OTA session on Tuesday. Normally, a tweak is described as a hamstring injury. He’s expected back for mini-camp, according to Quinn. Also, defensive back Leon McFadden (stomach flu), safety Quincy Mauger (knee), left guard Andy Levitre (arm), right guard Wes Schweitzer (undisclosed) and defensive end Takkarrist McKinley (shoulder) were working off to the side with the training staff. 

5. Leaders on defense: Quinn said linebacker Deion Jones and strong safety Keanu Neal are developing “powerful” leadership skills and have made presentations to the defensive group because they know have a full understanding of the defense.

6. The Trufant plan: The Falcons have asked cornerback Desmond Trufant to make more plays on the ball. But the offseason rules don’t allow for contact so that’ll have to see that part later. 

“Could you know what you work on so hard that you could teach it,” Quinn said. “He’s really fit, looking strong and ready.”

Trufant has 60 pass breakups, but only nine interceptions over 72 regular-season games. The Falcons want to turn some of those breakups into interceptions.

7. Visitors at practice: N.C. State’s co-defensive coordinator Ted Roof, formerly of Georgia Tech, watched practice with several other members of their staff.

8. Salary cap update: After the post-June 1 adjustments, the Falcons are $7,238,018 million under their adjusted salary cap of $176,018,958 million, according to NFLPA documents. 

The release of tight end Levine Toilolo with a post-June 1 designation saved the team $3.5 million. The 6-foot-8 Toilolo was selected in the fourth round (133 overall) of the 2013 NFL draft out of Stanford and the hope was that he would develop into a red zone threat. He turned out to be a blocking tight end.

Toilolo signed a one-year contract with the Lions in free agency.

9. Mini-camp open for one session: The Falcons will open to the public one day of their three-day mandatory mini-camp.

Fans are invited to attend Wednesday, June 13 practice at the team’s Flowery Branch practice facility beginning at 2:30 p.m. Wide receiver Julio Jones is expected to attend next week’s mini-camp in Flowery Branch.

Admission to the event is free and gates open at 1:30 p.m. 

DEPTH CHART: Here’s the working depth chart: 


WR 11 Julio Jones, 18, Calvin Ridley, 14 Justin Hardy, 13 Reggie Davis, 86 Lamar Jordan, 16 Taj Williams

LT 70 Jake Matthews, 68 Austin Pasztor, 76 Daniel Brunskill

LG 67 Andy Levitre, 63 Ben Garland, 64 Sean Harlow, 75 Jamil Douglas 

C 51 Alex Mack, 63 Ben Garland, 61 J.C. Hassenauer

RG 65 Brandon Fusco, 71 Wes Schweitzer, 62 Salesi Uhatafe

RT 73 Ryan Schraeder, 74 Ty Sambrailo, 77 Matt Gono

TE 81 Austin Hooper, 82 Logan Paulsen, 85 Eric Saubert, 89 Alex Gray, 80 Troy Mangen, 87 Jaeden Graham 

WR 12 Mohamed Sanu, 17 Marvin Hall, 83 Russell Gage, 15 Christian Blake, 19 Dontez Byrd, 7 Devin Gray, Taj Williams 

QB 2 Matt Ryan, 8 Matt Schaub, 9 Grayson Garrett, 6 Kurt Benkert

RB 24 Devonta Freeman, 26 Tevin Coleman, 25 Ito Smith, 32 Justin Crawford, 35 Malik Williams

FB 40 Daniel Marx, 43 Luke McNitt, 41 Demario Richard 


DE 98 Takk McKinley, 50 Brooks Reed, 79 Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, 96 Mackendy Cheridor

DT 99 Terrell McClain, 94 Deadrin Senat, 93 Garrison Smith, 

DT 97 Grady Jarrett, 95 Jack Crawford, 92 Justin Zimmer, 99 Jon Cunningham

DE 44 Vic Beasley, 90 Derrick Shelby, 55 J’Terius Jones 

WLB 42 Duke Riley, 54 Foyesade Oluokun

MLB 45 Deion Jones, 52 Emmanuel Ellerbe, 53 Emmanuel Smith 

SLB 59 De’Vondre Campbell, 56 Anthony Winbush, 49 Richard Jarvis

CB 23 Robert Alford, 20 Isaiah Oliver, 28 Justin Bethel, 33 Blidi Wreh-Wilson, 39 Deante Burton 

CB 21 Desmond Trufant, 34 Brian Poole, 35 Leon McFadden, 43 Chris Lammons

NB 34 Brian Poole, 27 Damontae Kazee, 42 Tyson Graham, 30 Joseph Putu 

FS 37 Ricardo Allen, 27 Damontae Kazee, 38 Marcelis Branch, 41 Jason Hall

SS 22 Keanu Neal, 36 Kemal Ishmael, 41 Quincy Mauger, 35 Secdrick Cooper 


K 3 Matt Bryant, 1 David Marvin 

KO 5 Matt Bosher

P 5 Matt Bosher

KR 14 Justin Hardy, 17 Marvin Hall, 30 Ito Smith

PR 14 Justin Hardy, 16 Reggie Davis

LS 47 Josh Harris

H 5 Matt Bosher 

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About the Author

D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter
D. Orlando Ledbetter is the Atlanta Falcons beat writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.